On Sept. 10, 2001, the United States of America was busy pursuing its differences, as usual. Culture wars flourished. The population was growing more suburban, less white, more foreign-born, more Western and Southern. The ill feeling that followed the appointment of George W. Bush as president of the United States by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision had not dissipated much, if at all. That day, The New York Times editorialized against proposed Bush tax cuts, and Sean Hannity’s immigrant-phobic radio show went into national syndication.
The next day, the Bergen Record was saying, “Almost all of our concerns suddenly seemed trivial in the face of this monumental tragedy.” And the Topeka Capital Journal editorialized: “Our petty differences, over politics, over race, over the economy, will melt away just as surely as the glass and metal of the World Trade Center.”
Well, no. The longing may have been real, and the collective effort on display in the days, weeks, and months after Sept. 11 was often inspiring. But it was hard for an extraordinarily diverse country to agree for long on what America stood for, besides grief, cooperation, and pride. The blazing jet fuel that melted away the pillars of the World Trade Center did not melt away differences, though some officials tried gagging dissenters. President Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, famously chastised a TV comedian that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Eighteen months later, on the eve of the Iraq war, the Dixie Chicks, who had both the top-selling album and single at the time, had their songs pulled from play lists when one of them, Natalie Maines, not previously known for her political leanings, said she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas”— ashamed, that is, that he was taking the country to war on the basis of false and cherry-picked information. Angry listeners called stations to denounce her as unpatriotic. Other media muzzled themselves.
For some time, the sudden gasp of impotence produced spasms of would-be omnipotence. By the time America returned to its normal dissension, it was too late to stop a misguided war predicated on a fantasy that joined the feeling of absolute vulnerability to absolute rectitude and absolute paranoia. “They” had it in for us, so we would destroy “them.” If a network of fanatical masterminds could strike us anywhere from a shifting faraway base, we would have to be more powerful than the sum of all other forces on the face of the earth—forever.
If on Sept. 10, 2001, America was united in disbelief that anyone could hijack airliners, crash them on these shores, and massacre thousands of human beings in the name of a crazy and vicious ideology, then for some time afterward America toyed with near-unity at the cost of mental self-decapitation.
But reality proved resistant to the messianic fantasy of remaking the world at will — whether America’s or al-Qaeda’s. The tyrant Saddam Hussein was not in cahoots with the Islamist al-Qaeda, and neither was in cahoots with south-of-the-border immigrants, Muslim-Americans, abortion doctors or "uppity" same-sexers — other targets of hatred on the part of those who felt that their country was under assault by aliens.
The unity of Sept. 11, 2001, could not be sustained, and since then, Americans have resumed a long, slow ebbing of collective confidence that our institutions are as capable as each of us wishes we individually were.
We are doubtful about all authorities. Expert opinion is under fire from every direction. None of the branches of government inspire confidence, nor do big business, schools or national media. The Afghanistan and Iraq expeditions have boomeranged; Americans have grown grumpier about foreign expeditions. Americans will tell pollsters they think the country is in decline — though they did so in similar numbers 20 years ago. Whether they trust the polls themselves is doubtful.
As the dust clears, America remains a tangle of clashing values, divergent goals, and not-always-acknowledged doubts. Traditional optimism has worn thin, whether about economic prospects, national standing or moral virtue.
Patently, the country is in a bad mood, not least because it turned out that the forces capable of wrecking workplaces and throwing people out of their homes wore white collars and cufflinks, not turbans. About this, there is much agreement, but no focused course of action follows.
Meanwhile, a vocal minority, with a grip on a major political party, counsels that the most dangerous enemy is the taxpayer-fueled U.S. government—along with its educated, secularist supporters. Amid the general jitters, rumbles of xenophobia resound and demagogic conspiracy theories flourish. Many people assume that somebody must be in charge — a small malevolent group, most likely, for wasn’t America born innocent and Americans destined to be a chosen people, and therefore shouldn’t our failings be somebody’s fault? On the other hand, more Americans are probably bewildered because nobody seems to be writing the script, and alarmists, whether about climate change or economic slump, are met with skeptical glares because they too purport to be experts. We yearn for rescue — as many in 2008 thought Barack Obama would deliver us as we stood by and watched — and in more realistic moods doubt it is possible.
It’s fair to say, in summary, that America’s quandaries cannot be resolved by rounding up external suspects. Enemies we have, but they are not so lethal or grave as to smother our deeper dissensions. The larger trouble is that our grand ideals are badly tarnished — except perhaps for the hope that faster, more mobile, more reliable round-the-clock communication and other technologies will remedy ignorance, cure disease, extend life, arrange for appropriate dates, and end boredom. But the next app, drone, database, networking platform or banking “product” will not restore America’s place as the world’s city upon a hill. Confidence in technological gadgetry may remain our abiding faith, but no gadgets will substitute for the lost dream of an American destiny that would be more than the sum of its parts.
-Todd Gitlin is a sociologist and cultural commentator, Columbia University